The Lollards

by Stuart Murray Williams

The Lollard movement emerged in late medieval England from the popularising of the ideas of Oxford scholar, John Wyclif. Between the late fourteenth and early sixteenth century, the Lollards flourished, suffered persecution, attempted armed resistance, were suppressed and yet survived as a pre-Reformation movement of dissent.

John Wyclif (c1329-1384)

Wyclif was an academic rather than a revolutionary, an establishment man rather than a radical, who seems to have had no intention of launching a movement that would challenge the religious and political status quo. His criticisms of the church were accompanied by calls for reform rather than the development of an alternative church, and he remained a member of the established church throughout his life. But his views inspired the first dissident movement of any consequence in England.

Wyclif was a philosopher as well as a theologian, and many of his earlier writings are concerned with complex metaphysical issues as he entered into contemporary debates.

In his later writings, he concentrated more on ecclesiastical abuses that concerned him and developed strongly anticlerical views. His writings were not intended to foment social unrest or to promulgate political ideas, but his opponents certainly feared that they might have this effect. Most of the things he said were not new, but his academic reputation and the force with which he wrote gave his views a special significance.

The publicity given to Wyclif’s views aroused the concern of the church authorities, and attempts were made to convict him of heresy and to silence him. But the support of many powerful friends protected Wyclif and enabled him to continue propagating increasingly trenchant criticisms and radical views until his death.

Wyclif and the Lollards

The nature of the relationship between Wyclif and the Lollards is not easy to assess. One of the practical initiatives he suggested in his later writings was the training and commissioning of ‘poor preachers’, laymen whose task was to teach the Scriptures throughout the land. Wyclif’s expressed intention was not to start a new movement or to plant new churches, but simply to fill what he saw as a gap in the established churches. His preachers were to work alongside the parish priests, preaching, teaching and evangelising. Another initiative with important consequences was Wyclif’s determination to provide a bible in the English language for his preachers and their hearers. At least some of Wyclif’s own writings during the final period of his life were also in the vernacular, rather than Latin, consistent with his concern that the discussion of theology should not be restricted to priests and academics. Some of these writings helped to inspire the developing Lollard movement.

The groups that emerged during Wyclif’s final years and proliferated after his death quite quickly became known as the Lollards. This word probably derived from a word meaning ‘to mumble’ and referred either to their practice of learning and reciting Scripture or to their praying. An alternative possibility is the derivation of the term from ‘lollers’, meaning idle loafers.

The Lollard movement

Whatever the direct influence of Wyclif on the movement, Lollards owed much to Wyclif’s ideas, even if they knew them only in a simplified form. He provided them with ammunition to launch a powerful assault on the established churches: it was a small step from denouncing the clergy to the idea of the priesthood of all believers.

After Wyclif’s death, Lollard groups spread rapidly. The Oxford leaders – Nicholas Hereford, John Aston, Philip Repton, Robert Winston and John Ashwardby – travelled widely and wrote extensively, building up a substantial following. Under their leadership radical ideas were translated from academic to popular circles and the Lollard movement emerged as a loose-knit but identifiable phenomenon.

The academic and clerical leaders were joined by many lay evangelists, who often dressed in russet tunics and walked barefoot. Most were from the poorer sections of society, their greatest strength being among urban and rural artisans, especially those who had recently become literate and were open to new ideas. Lollard beliefs spread through public preaching, distribution of Bibles and tracts, and invitations to friends to join ‘reading circles’, where the Bible was studied and radical ideas discussed.

Lollard preaching called for personal responsibility rather than passive acceptance of clerical authority and expressed the doubts that were more widely felt about some of the seemingly superstitious and biblically unwarranted beliefs and practices of the church. Making available portions of the Bible in the vernacular enabled the Lollards to demonstrate the lack of biblical support for such beliefs and practices.

The authorities were alarmed by the spread of this movement, especially in light of recent peasant unrest, and steps were taken to arrest it. But no co-ordinated strategy was adopted to check the popular spread of the movement. Many bishops were slow to respond and found Lollard groups deeply rooted in their dioceses by the time they were ready to take action. Lollard leaders enjoyed widespread popular support – and protection from influential landowners – which made ecclesiastical action less easy. Secular authorities, though concerned about peasant unrest and possible Lollard complicity in this, were not unduly bothered about ecclesiastical disputes.

From 1401, opponents of the Lollards had been authorised to use burning for relapsed and impenitent heretics. But in England, there was reticence about using torture and burning to stamp out heresies, and the Lollards profited from this welcome restraint. Those arrested were generally given ample time to recant and the authorities wanted to convert them back to the established churches, rather than execute them.

But in 1413 this changed. Sir John Oldcastle, a baron, was the most distinguished secular Lollard leader. He began to gather support for an armed rebellion, presumably to impose Lollard reforms on church and nation. This was betrayed to the authorities before it could be carried out. But this incident revealed how far Lollardy had spread and finally roused both official and public opinion against the Lollards. Oldcastle was caught and executed, and others involved in the rebellion were hanged. Various Lollard groups were discovered and their members prosecuted, now that the bishops and secular authorities could rely on their outraged neighbours to betray them.

The following years were marked by efforts by secular and ecclesiastical authorities to stamp out the movement, although gradually the repression became less severe. It was clear that the Lollards would survive, if at all, only as an underground movement. Throughout the fifteenth century efforts were made to root them out, but, as memories of the revolts faded, there was less enthusiasm for such actions.

In the 1450s, during a lull in action against them, Lollards began again to evangelise and plant new groups. The reading circles were still influential means of attracting new adherents, and the authorities were unsuccessful in their efforts to restrict the production and distribution of Lollard literature and vernacular versions of the Bible. Lollard beliefs were passed down within families and through trade contacts. Sermons were written down and distributed to adherents and to interested enquirers. Lollard schools were also operating to instruct members of the movement.

Most Lollard groups operated in the southern part of England, although there were groups as far north as Newcastle. Seven areas have been identified as the main centres of Lollard activity in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: Kent, London, the Chilterns, Essex, Bristol, Coventry and East Anglia.

Lollard beliefs

Though there was no uniformity of belief in such a loose-knit movement, there was broad agreement within the movement on many issues throughout its history.

(1) Personal responsibility/biblical authority. In an age when people expected to let the priests do their thinking for them in matters of religion, the Lollards encouraged the development of personal Bible study, taught reliance on the Holy Spirit as guide, and urged members to reach independent decisions on matters of faith rather than accepting ecclesiastical opinions and dogmas.

(2) Rejection of superstition. Lollards used their new English versions of the Bible to contrast the simplicity of the early church with the formalism and complexity of contemporary church life. They rejected anything they perceived as superstitious rather than authentically Christian, including doctrines such as purgatory and transubstantiation and practices such as prayers for the dead. They rejected pilgrimages as a waste of time and a money-making scheme for the priests. Simple rational explanations held greater appeal for them than elements of mystery and symbolism.

(3) The priesthood of all believers. The distinction between clergy and laity was crucial in the established churches, with the laity being largely passive. But Lollards rejected this distinction, and their anti-clerical stance found a ready welcome among many who were already critical of a privileged and corrupt clergy. Many Lollards advocated withholding tithes from such clerics. They rejected the authority of the Pope and the Church as an institution and replaced this with the authority of the Bible interpreted within their communities. The true church was a congregation of true believers. Although there are instances of Lollard groups ordaining their own priests, generally they were committed to the priesthood of all believers, with lay people involved in all aspects of religious life, including preaching, hearing confessions informally, and officiating at the Eucharist.

(4) The sacraments. Lollards stressed a common sense approach to faith and applied this to issues such as communion, where it seemed obvious that the bread remained bread, whatever the metaphysical explanations behind the traditional dogmas. Transubstantiation was regarded as a recent and perverted development contrary to the teachings of the orthodox creeds. Anti-clericalism led naturally to the rejection of ordination and some opposed priestly celibacy. They valued marriage but some taught that no priestly involvement was needed to witness a marriage. Financial and anti-ceremonial views coincided in the rejection of the need for extreme unction or burial in consecrated ground. In some areas, infant baptism was held to be as acceptable in a ditch as in a font, or rejected altogether, on the grounds that infants were redeemed by Christ in any case and did not need to be sprinkled with supposedly holy water.

(5) Ethical perspectives. There was a strong moral component in the Lollards’ teaching. The book of James, with its practical ethical teaching, was popular. They criticised the low standards among ordinary parishioners and clergy (especially their sexual misdemeanours and social insensitivity). They called for repentance, discipleship, simplicity of life and concern for the poor. On specific issues there was diversity of opinion. Some groups followed Wyclif’s view that war might be justified but other means were preferable; others held a pacifist view and opposed participation in war, making weapons, capital punishment, and self-defence when attacked; others again were willing to support John Oldcastle in his attempt to overthrow the government. Some taught that tithing had no New Testament support and should not be practised; others held that tithing was voluntary and that tithes should not be paid to unworthy priests. Some opposed the swearing of oaths as contrary to the teaching of Jesus; others held that oaths should be avoided where possible but were legitimate to save lives.

(6) Mission. Lollard preachers were a mission band that contrasted sharply with the maintenance orientation of the parish priests and the monks. Unlike the settled leadership of parish priests, Lollard leaders moved from place to place in order to spread the message and establish new groups. Furthermore, mission was not restricted to preachers but was the responsibility of all members. The spread of the movement relied upon this every-member evangelism, as new converts were made through house-to-house visitation, pub evangelism, preaching in fairs and markets, conversations over meals in homes, passing on tracts and invitations to reading circles. Lollard preachers sometimes interrupted church services to preach, or persuaded local priests to surrender their pulpits to them. By the middle of the fifteenth century, it seems that the charismatic itinerant leaders had largely given way to less colourful figures who travelled between the communities, carrying books and greetings rather than initiating new activities, and that mission now mainly comprised the quiet evangelising of local communities.